By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
East County exotic animal sanctuary looks to expand
In 1990, Bobbi Brink was searching through a her local Texas newspaper for used restaurant equipment when another classified listing caught her eye and changed the course of her life.
“I kept seeing ads for lions, tigers, leopards for sale and so being the animal lover that I am, I wanted to go see what it was about,” Brink said. “I went to a lady’s house and she lived in a mobile home on 5 acres. She had 30 big cats and babies crawling all over the floor. You could take a lion or a cougar home with no permits, nothing. You could just buy a tiger and take it home.”
It was Brink’s first experience with the exotic animal trade and one that eventually led her to open one of the most respected wild animal sanctuaries in the country: Lions, Tigers and Bears located in the Alpine in eastern San Diego County.
Brink has no formal training in zoo keeping or veterinarian work but she has been working hands-on with wild animals since 1990, starting with volunteering for that lady in Texas who bred big cats from her mobile home.
“At first I had no clue, because I didn’t know what she was doing was wrong for like the first three months I was there — but then you quickly start seeing [abuse],” she said.
For example, she said, breeders keep pairs in small enclosures. When the babies are born and their eyes open at eight days old, they yank them from the mother to bring the female back into heat. A tiger will breed every 105, 110 days this way but in the wild, they only breed once every two years.
“They’re continuous breeding machines that make them money and they don’t care who they sell to,” Brink said. “They also intermix the species so they’ll breed lions to tigers, which doesn’t happen in the wild and it’s just sad.”
Lions, Tigers and Bears (LTB) was founded shortly after Bobbi and her husband Mark Brink bought the Alpine ranch in 2003. The first animals they brought there were two tigers named Raja and Natasha who were rescued from a Texas man who bought the cats as a birthday present for his wife.
He never built them a proper habitat because the couple divorced. After several visits from authorities, the man told U.S. Fish and Wildlife that he was going to shoot the tigers but instead was convinced to give Brink 30 days to relocate them from his home in Texas to her new property in Alpine.
Today, LTB is home to 60 animals, “every single one a rescue, a confiscation or surrender,” Brink said.
There are 17 different species, including African lions, cougars, white and orange tigers, bobcats, a serval Indian cat, black and spotted leopards, American and Himalayan black bears and grizzly bears. The sanctuary is also a rescue for horses, donkeys, miniature horses, sheep, goats and other farm animals.
LTB is also one of the only sanctuaries in the country with a hauler that can transport these types of animals, so it is often called upon to help move animals for other sanctuaries.
“We just did a big sanctuary that closed up in South Dakota,” Brink said. “We moved 200 animals as far as Florida, Texas, Arizona and here from that one rescue.”
The cost of running the LTB is around $1.2 million a year with the greatest expenses being electricity, insurance and building new habitats.
“The average to feed one tiger, just food and basic vaccines and flea control, is about $10,000 a year per animal,” Brink said.
The budget is funded entirely by donations, educations programs, a two-bedroom house that is rented to animal lovers at $650 per night and various fundraisers.
LTB is hosting a casino night-themed gala on May 20 that will feature gambling tables, a silent auction, bar, entertainment and, of course, the animals. The gala usually raises about four months’ worth of operating costs, Brink said. There is also a fundraiser at Christmas time and a “spooky” campout in the fall held at the ranch.
Raising money is important right now because the sanctuary is in the middle of an ambitious expansion. The plan includes building more habitats, a feed room, an expanded vet facility and a classroom. Brink said that when completed, LTB will be able to hold 100 more animals.
“When we take an animal, we have to support it for its life,” she said, adding that because the animals can live 20 to 30 years, the sanctuary must have more facilities in order to take in new animals while also providing for existing ones. “We can only take in what we can support.”
A habitat is currently under construction for three new cats coming in this year — one white lion and two lions that are retired circus animals.
Although LTB is not a zoo where people walk up and buy tickets, visitors are welcome by appointment on Wednesdays through Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.
To make an appointment to visit the sanctuary, to schedule a field trip or other large group visit, or to make a donation, visit lionstigersandbears.org.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.